Arne Duncan said it was his most effective tweet. Late last month, he congratulated campaigners in Maryland's Montgomery County School Districts for pushing for later start times for teenagers in the area's high schools. The tweet, which said, "let teens sleep more, start school later," got the attention of the local media. It might have ended there, but then Duncan expounded on his point of view last week in an interview with USA Today's Susan Page on NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show."
"I think it's incumbent upon education leaders to not run school systems that work good for buses but that don't work for students," Duncan said. "They're not very awake. They're groggy, they're not able to pay attention in class."
I was also a guest on the NPR show that day, and I came to the studio prepared to discuss President Obama's new college ranking plan and the slow, painful process of implementing the Common Core State Standards. Those are great topics, right? Not according to the listening audience. We were flooded with e-mails, calls, tweets, and Facebook reactions about starting school later. Why not? Everyone seems to want to know.
Frankly, I want to know, too. My son and I both are groggy at 6:30 a.m. to get to his 7:15 a.m. bus. I do think I know the basic skeleton of the answer, though. It is a district-by-district decision, and school districts are not flush with cash to pay for school buses to be stuck in traffic. Or, they don't have enough buses to take all the kids to school at the same time. The high school students generally are the ones to draw the earlier start times. The answer also has something to do with community priorities and how much money a school district is willing to put in to busing versus other costs of education. There are also after-school activities to consider, which become more important in high school. But honestly, those seem like weak reasons, even to the most sympathetic of school observers.
So I pose the question to the community at large: Why do we have such early start times for high schools? What are the barriers to moving their first classes to a more reasonable time, say 9 a.m.? Do the school days have to be staggered such that the younger kids go in later and the older kids go in earlier? Are after-school activities a real reason for starting school so early, or is that just a convenient excuse? How would later start times affect teachers? Would it hurt anyone to extend the number of school days to accommodate a later start time and maintain the right number of learning hours?